Encouraging Engagement From Young And Old
Thanks to timely summer rains and cooperative temperatures, this is one of the most spectacular years ever for fall color in the maritime Northwest. I grew up in New England, where fabulous fall foliage supports a lucrative tourist industry; in a good year, leaf tours may run from mid September through October, filling B&Bs and thrilling regional boutiques and restaurants. Here on the West Coast, notable fall color is far less certain, so a standout year is something to celebrate. Or so I would think.
Perhaps because it’s uncommon, fall color isn’t really noticed here, or only in a perfunctory way. I used to drive my mom around the island, stopping at a blueberry field, blazing ember red, and circling through neighborhoods where bigleaf maples and birches shone golden against the subfusc backdrop of fir and cedar. I recently invited several folks who no longer drive to take a leaf tour and was bemused to hear that none of them were particularly interested.
Remembering my childhood delight in playing with the leaves, I want to reawaken that simple joy in others. However, when I asked my grandkids if they liked to jump in leaf piles they looked at me like I was nuts. A little conversation reminded me that, most years, our lovely leaves quickly turn to slimy slush in the usual autumn rains. Oh, right. But this autumn is a dry one, and though that spells trouble down the road, for now, I’m taking my grandkids outside to gather especially beautiful leaves, then using the foliage to line paths in vivid patterns. True, the leaves soon blow away but such natural confetti is gorgeous even as it tumbles off down the street. We’re also sewing our favorite leaves into swags to drape over denuded trees and garden gates. It’s wonderful fun in the moment and I hope it may spark a little happiness in passersby who may have forgotten how sweet it can be to take pleasure in such ephemera.
I’m still curious about the general lack of love for the seasonal changes I find intoxicating. Turns out that for many people these days, autumn is more about setting the clocks back to gain an extra hour of sleep than preparation for the coming winter. With grocery stores continuously offering pretty much anything we might want, from asparagus and strawberries to citrus and squash, the idea of harvest and putting up food for winter doesn’t really resonate anymore. When homes and cars, shops and offices are effortlessly heated or cooled, we don’t even need to dress very differently as seasons change. In fact, if we bundle up on a cold day, we’ll need to strip off those famous Northwestern layers right quick when we get inside, where the temperature is probably very similar no matter what the calendar says. Samey same sameness can make us oblivious to our surroundings, the way homeowners with astonishing views of water and mountains say their windows turn into wallpaper after a while.
Even as a child, I’ve always felt a deep need to acknowledge seasonal shifts, perhaps especially this cusp between autumn and winter, the time of summer’s retreat and the approaching darkness. Before Halloween was claimed by the Christian church as a time to honor all saints and all souls, it was an important sacred day for Celtish people, Samhain, which marked the slide into winter. Indeed, throughout the temperate world, most cultures traditionally celebrated both harvest and the time of gathering darkness.
For thousands of years, people living with seasonal change had to prepare for the cold and be ready for the short, dim days if they planned to survive. Whether this midpoint between the equinox and solstice was noted or not, many cultures marked the actual winter solstice with rituals that often included huge bonfires, rowdy songs, and feasting. For some, winter solstice was also a time of deliberate darkness and cold, with all fires and lights extinguished at sundown, the gathered family or clan singing, telling stories, and keeping vigil through the longest night until the first ray of sun brought light back into the world.
Joy And Sorrow
That quieter, more reflective tradition suits me best and my own celebrations lean into the introspective rather than the festive. With the world in dire distress, it’s hard for me to get in a party mood or be lured into over-spending and over-indulging. That isn’t to say there’s no joy in my life or my world view; there certainly is, and I keep a daily tally of gratitudes and delights to help me remember that vital balance between the darkness and the light. (No need to keep a list of the griefs, sadly.) Exercising joyfulness helps me stay in a healthy balance, which is why bags of beautiful leaves keep company with my sourdough starter in my refrigerator. Baking bread always soothes my sorrow with nourishment, beauty and fragrance. And the leaves?
Ah! Today, my grandkids and I will decoupage empty tissue boxes with our favorite leaves (thanks to Mod Podge). When the boxes dry, we’ll fill them with cleaning rags and hankies cut from soft, recycled materials, and they’ll be our holiday family gifts. Doing our small bit to save trees feels like positive action, especially as these impressionable children are learning to genuinely love and respect trees. Clearly, we humans all need to develop this arboreal love if we want to survive. If I had my way, I’d vanish all copies of that misogynist book, The Giving Tree: Seriously, who thinks it’s a healthy model for anyone? A boy growing up and systematically stripping a supposedly beloved tree of life and limb and reducing it to a dead stump? And who thinks it’s a great model of feminine “giving”? Gah! We need a better book, one about planting and nurturing trees, planting gardens for birds and bees as well as humans, healing soil. Hmmm…